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Swiss ski resorts prepared for their busiest day of the season while empty chairlifts rattled in the wind on the French side of the Alps.

The winter’s biggest dump of fresh powder drew a steady stream of skiers and snowboarders to this Swiss mountain village this past weekend, one of a dozen resorts that make up the cross-border ski region of Portes du Soleil, or Doors of the Sun. The ski lift line stretched all the way down the main road.

As he drove by the throngs on Saturday, Yannick Bellon, the head of a local ski school, said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

crowd gathered on snowy mountain park

The coronavirus pandemic

In typical years, skiers would be able to swoosh between destinations with a single pass. They might start their descent in Switzerland, end up in France by the time they got to the valley, and then catch a lift right back up.

Conflicting responses to the coronavirus pandemic, on the other hand, have sparked divisions across Europe, including here in the Alps.

Fearful of a repeat of last year’s big coronavirus outbreak linked to the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl, the French have kept ski lifts closed so far this season — and will do so again on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Swiss chose to mitigate the risk by implementing mask and social separation rules, as well as closing après-ski clubs that were thought to be important transmission centres in Ischgl. Despite the French government’s warnings to keep off the Swiss slopes, eager skiers went to the Alps this past weekend in perfect circumstances, leaving their pandemic lethargy behind. On Saturday, approximately every fourth automobile in a Morgins parking lot had a French licence plate.

The increasing commerce in Swiss resorts has sparked jealousy in French ski communities hit by coronavirus bans. However, as highly contagious forms of the virus sweep the globe, the crowds make social distance more difficult to enforce and raise public health concerns.

Switzerland’s crowd control

This past weekend, skiers and snowboarders waited in snaking lift lines in the Swiss Alpine resort of Verbier. Flumserberg, one of the nearest ski resorts to Zurich, was overcrowded to the point where people were being turned away at the railway station. To maintain order, some resorts had to call in local fire departments.

Safety officers in Morgins hustled the lines along, advising people to keep their distance and pull their masks above their noses, wearing orange jackets with the sign “Stop Covid.” The workers — dubbed “covid angels” by the locals — rarely had to remind people of the restrictions, and in the vast majority of situations, they didn’t have to.

Switzerland is not a part of the European Union, so officials in charge of the country’s pandemic response were wary of caving in to pressure from the bloc’s most powerful members. Regional governments were generally in charge of making decisions, as they wanted to keep their local companies and ski lifts running.

“Closing is not an option,” said Christophe Darbellay, head of the Valais regional government, which includes Morgins.

Switzerland, which has had more coronavirus cases per capita than Italy or France, strengthened its border controls and closed non-essential stores last week, among other things. However, it did not have a significant impact on skiing.